We’ve Reached the Tipping Point for Remote Work

We might see a day when towns get into bidding wars for remote workers instead of a company’s HQ.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Canadians just aren’t work online people,” the twenty-something assured me, as he charged my credit card for my new phone. “I wish more people moved to Canada like you. You already have a job and you didn’t even take it from a Canadian.” 

I thanked the man for my cell phone and left without arguing with him. It was 2014, I was fresh off the plane from California, and I didn’t want my first action as a Canadian expat to be telling a random stranger why he was wrong.

And make no mistake, he was wrong. Remote work is a world wide trend that shows no signs of disappearing. In Canada, 47% of employees work outside of an office for at least half of the week. And according to International Workplace Group (IWG), over half of employees across the globe work outside of their main office at least 2.5 days per week. While the overall number of full time remote workers world-wide is relatively low — Owl Labs puts the number at 16% — it’s one of the fastest growing workforce segments in the US.

While we can probably discount the idea that everyone will be working remotely in the future, it’s pretty clear that remote work — in some form — is here to stay. 

The People Are Asking for It

“It turns out your friend is only MOSTLY dead.”

In the movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ Miracle Max asks the (mostly) dead Wesley “What’s so important? What do you have that’s worth living for?” Wesley had a strong reason for wanting to live. While today’s knowledge workers may not be motivated by true love, many of them have compelling reasons to pursue a flexible work schedule.

The survey from IWG found that “83% of global respondents report that the ability to work flexibly at least some of the time would act as clincher in case of indecision between two similar job offers.” Even people who don’t want to work from home 100% of the time benefit from a work from home policy. No one wants to use a vacation day to wait for the plumber to show up. Working from home means you don’t have to.

While work flexibility is a perk for some, for others, it’s a requirement. For a certain segment of the workforce, remote jobs mean the difference between working and unemployment. Some people have health conditions that they can only manage from home. Others must move every few years to follow a spouse. 

These folks are highly motivated to learn the necessary skills to work remotely and find employers who will accommodate their needs. Employers who are truly interested in diversity and inclusion should consider remote work as one way to further that goal. The technology already exists to let you transition to an ‘office optional’ approach. 

The Technology is Already Here

I was once at a party where another guest said, after learning that I work remotely, “We could never do that where I work. I can’t do my job online.” It’s absolutely valid for people to say that they don’t want to work from home. However, there’s only a subset of knowledge worker jobs that can’t be done remotely. 

Just ask 100% remote companies like Automattic, Buffer,and FlexJobs. Virtual Private Networks, video conferencing, and collaborative project management boards allow companies to conduct business no matter where employees sit. Everything from accounting to people management can be done online. 

In some cases, when people say ‘you can’t do that remotely,’ what they really mean is ‘I don’t know how to do that remotely.’ Many of us learned how to perform work in a traditional office. We developed skills that depended on seeing each other. ‘Going remote’ means relearning how to communicate, how to get what you need, and how to motivate people to do things. 

You might not want to relearn these skills. You may not have a choice. Knowledge work CAN be done online, and knowledge workers know it. Business leadership might keep certain tasks in a physical office, but there needs to be a well-thought-out rationale for doing so. ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ isn’t enough. Not when workers can interview for a remote job without leaving home. And not when they may have other, more powerful reasons for doing so. 

Cities are Getting Expensive

I love the city by the bay, but I’ll only be a visitor for the foreseeable future. Photo by Zoe Pappas on Pexels.com

I left California in 2014 to move to Canada. I can’t afford to move back. Not if I want to give my children a good life. My hometown is so expensive that people making six figures are living in their cars. While the state needs to resolve the livability crisis, remote work can provide an escape hatch for employees who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to move. 

People are more productive when they aren’t worried about feeding their children or losing their homes. They’re happier when they can break free from long commutes and spend time building a life outside of work. For companies based in expensive areas, providing a remote work option is the ethical thing to do. Not everyone will choose remote work, but for those that do, it can dramatically improve their quality of life. 

This is true not just for employees, but also for rural geographies.

Revitalizing Rural Communities

People have been leaving the country to move to the city for hundreds of years. The rate of movement is on the rise, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that nearly 3 million people are moving to cities every week. This has left many rural areas without the needed population to keep their economies afloat. 

A few of these rural areas are attempting to reverse the tide. Towns inside and outside of the US will pay you to move in. Some are even specifically targeting remote workers. In January of 2019, the state of Vermont started accepting applications for the Remote Worker Grant Program. If you work for an out of state employer, Vermont would like to give you $10,000 over two years to move there. 

Governments aren’t the only entities trying to revitalize rural communities. There are a growing number of grassroots movements dedicated to bringing remote work to small towns and villages around the world. Grow Remote is just one of these community-based groups. Their mission is to help repopulate rural areas, to employ those already there, and to give remote workers a connection to the larger community. 

It’s a little too soon to tell if these initiatives will bring people back to rural communities. CNN reports that as of May 14, Vermont has approved 33 remote work grants and people are moving in. And rural communities aren’t the only ones trying to attract remote workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma has followed in Vermont’s footsteps and is also offering $10,000 if you move into the city for a year. 

Will people stay and put down roots? Only time will tell. If these programs help Tulsa and Vermont to grow their tax base, it’s likely more places will set up programs to attract remote workers. 

The man who sold me my cell phone had one thing right. More people should have the opportunity to move to a new place, secure in the knowledge that they have a way to support themselves when they get there. Fortunately, a tool with this much potential isn’t going anywhere. As more companies embrace a flexible work policy, people will have the opportunity to improve their quality of life while potentially revitalizing their communities for years to come. 

Are In Person Retreats Necessary for Remote Workers?

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to see the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams.

Photo by Rebrand Cities

I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.

I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.

I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.

Is Your Company New to Remote?

In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.

If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.

Does Work Get Done Efficiently?

You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?

It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.

Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.

Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.

Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.

I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.

Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders

If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.

There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.

Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.

In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.

How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?

Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.

In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.

Does Everyone Need to Go?

I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.

It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.

Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.

I Moved Web Hosts and it Had Unintended Consequences

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels

Recently I moved my blog ‘Living La Vida Remota’ to a new web host. When I did that, it accidentally stopped sending my posts to those of you who subscribed to this function. If you would like to keep getting these posts in your email, you’ll have to subscribe again. You can find the form on the right side of the blog.

Sorry about that folks! Thursday we’ll go back to talking about remote work. I just finished an article on whether company retreats are really necessary for remote workers, and some things to think about before deciding whether or not to host one.

Public Speaking Fed My Creativity

Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but the instant feedback that comes from a live audience can jump start all sorts of things.

North Carolina on my mind

Hands hold a tray. Three sprouts in three small pots sit on the tray.
Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

I came back Sunday from my latest (and last) work-ish trip for the summer. I say ‘work-ish’ because while I was definitely at the MBA@UNC alumni weekend in a professional capacity to speak about remote work, I also got to enjoy the event as an alum of the program.

My first talk was ‘How to Survive and Thrive as a Remote Manager,’ and I already know that I need to turn this into a blog post, or a YouTube video or something. Maybe several somethings. I had people come up to me throughout the weekend to ask follow up questions and share their experiences managing remote employees. My talk—both my talks—tapped into a need.

Public Speaking is Scary and Awesome

Have I mentioned that I enjoy public speaking? I get nervous, but back when I sang in my college choir I learned how to harness the nerves and use it to energize my performance. I had one moment right at the beginning of the first talk where I had to stop and take a deep breath, but just like singing, after that the rhythm of the words I put together stepped in and carried me through to the end.

With writing, you assemble your argument, polish your prose, and then send it out into the air. Hopefully it lands well. Talking (or singing) in front of an audience forces me to know my material well enough to change it on the fly if I’m losing them.

Public Speaking is Performance

I deliberately use the term ‘performance’ to describe these talks. Anytime you’re delivering something in front of a group, it’s a performance. And if you think of it that way, you’re more likely to be an engaging speaker.

Each live performance is a conversation between me and whoever is in that room. I scripted out my talk, then changed it as I spoke it out loud. I revised it again when I found the slides I wanted to pair with my performance. It morphed a third time when I converted my script into an outline. The actual talk bore a strong resemblance to my final outline, but it wasn’t exact. I kept a few different jokes in my back pocket, and left room to incorporate the audience into my delivery.

Departures as Compost

Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but I love the instant feedback that comes from a live audience. And it’s been a long time since I’ve performed something in front of a collocated group. I’ve forgotten how it can jump start all sorts of things.

In his book ‘Creative Quest,’ Questlove describes these sorts of artistic departures as powerful fertilizers. This rings true. I feel like this weekend fed that part of me that makes things. I don’t know quite what will come out of it, but I have the seeds of several ideas, and I can feel them trying to sprout.

On the Road Again

On my last flight I started catching up on all the super hero movies leading up to End Game. At this rate I’ll be able to watch End Game by 2053.

I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.

Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad

Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.

The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips

My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.

Sometimes I take a break from work so my kids can stage a ‘spy kids’ photo shoot. My son says he looks ‘like that guy from Mission Impossible.’

I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.

Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.